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Russia: Can Medvedev Create Putin-Style Personality Cult?

  • Chloe Arnold --> Medvedev-Putin matrioshka doll at a Moscow stall in January (AFP) MOSCOW -- He may have been elected less than a week ago, but already photographs and paraphernalia relating to President-elect Dmitry Medvedev are up for sale on the Internet and at popular markets in Moscow.

For a staggering 20,000 rubles ($800), you can get a meter-high framed photograph of Russia's next president. Or for the more modest sum of 350 rubles, you can pick up a 10-piece Medvedev matrioshka doll.

"You can buy 10-piece dolls, five-piece dolls. Inside are all our former leaders," says Irma, who sells tourist trinkets at the Izmailovsky Park market in northern Moscow. "We haven't had them long. We ordered them just a week ago. They were ready for us literally on March 2."

Like most people in Russia, Irma was under no illusions about who would win the March 2 presidential election.

With a saleswoman's nous, a week before the vote she ordered 20 matrioshka dolls bearing the smiling face of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who predictably sailed through the polls on March 2.

"Tourists are buying them. And Russians. Everyone!" Irma says. "They're not selling too badly. But I don't know how well they will sell [in the future]. That's something you can't tell. It's hard to predict these things."

The Medvedev doll, which bears only a passing resemblance to the man himself, houses nine other Russian and Soviet leaders, from a teacup-sized Vladimir Putin to a Peter the Great no bigger than a child's fingernail. As well as the matrioshka sets, Irma is also selling Medvedev keyrings and Medvedev refrigerator magnets. If they do well, she may even start stocking Medvedev wooden Easter eggs in time for Orthodox Easter in a few weeks, she says.

Meanwhile, on the "V Ramke" or "In the Frame" website, more serious (or at any rate more affluent) Medvedev supporters can buy framed portraits of the president-to-be. There are two poses to choose from -- a plump Medvedev, or a slimmer version, each staring seriously at the camera against the backdrop of the Russian tricolor.

For 2,000 rubles, you can order a simple postcard-sized snapshot. Or for 20,000 rubles, you can splurge on the meter-high image, with your choice of border, and a solid wood frame. The blurb on the site says the "exclusive" version, as it is called, will become a "valuable part of your room's interior."

During his eight-year presidency, Putin managed successfully to build a personality cult around himself similar to those created by Soviet leaders. True, there haven't been giant statues of Putin put up across the country, as there were of Josef Stalin. But he has the perhaps dubious honor of being the only Russian leader to have had a pop song written about him. "I want a man like Putin" proved a nationwide success when it hit the charts in 2002.

But can Medvedev, as Putin's successor, hope to create a similar personality cult? Yevgeny Volk, director of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, is skeptical.

"Although Medvedev has been elected president, still all the levers of power -- including the people in the upper echelons of power -- are the people whom Putin has chosen for the top positions," Volk says.

"The problem is that the cult always ended with the death or shameful dismissal of the leader," he continues. "Stalin's cult ended with his death, Brezhnev's cult ended with his death, Khrushchev's cult ended when he was shamefully dismissed. In this case, the Putin's cult has survived, because he remains in power. He is still there."

Putin has indicated he will remain a key player in the Medvedev government -- most likely as his prime minister. Just like in Soviet times, photographs of the current leader hang on the walls of local and regional officials' offices -- will they be exchanged for portraits of Medvedev?

"It will be a very difficult choice for many people -- at least until March 7, when Medvedev is officially inaugurated," Volk says. "I believe most people will leave Putin's portrait. But after that, I believe they could have both! [laughs] Let's wait and see."

Nevertheless, Volk notes, in time, Medvedev will want to run his own show.

"Certainly it will take time for Medvedev to establish himself as a national leader," he says. "But according to the constitution, the Russian president has enormous power. And I believe Medvedev knows how to use this power to consolidate his influence, and gradually he will establish his own cult."

Volk concludes: "He won't be very happy being always in Mr. Putin's shadow."